Black businesses benefit from Energy efficiency movement

Life is a succession of fortunate circumstances. And when former Governor Jennifer Granholm issued an executive order, just before the 2006 campaign, calling for the creation of a “21st Century Energy Plan for Michigan” — the mission being to find alternative energy sources and greater energy efficiency — Louis E. James knew he had to get involved.

He knew there was an entire community of people he could give back to, people just like him.

As the markets changed and after years of running several businesses, James knew that he too had to change. In the end, electricity and gas is something people were going to always need.

Consequently, in 2009 James founded a company, Solutions for Energy Efficient Logistics (SEEL). By June, he had landed a huge customer, DTE Energy. Together they would make wonderful music, as they worked to implement DTE Energy’s efficiency program for electric and natural gas customers in multi-family and commercial properties — an ambitious but doable pilot program.

“Initially, the key for me was diversifying outside of the automobile industry,” said James. “I knew that energy efficiency would be a reality. And while there are people who look at solar, and they look at turbine and all the other things, energy efficiency is the greatest economic development tool and affordable for solving certain problems. I was moved by what we are trying to do as a country right now, and that’s conserve energy.”

Ask anyone who knows James and they will tell you he is a man who has built a career on an ability to be a inscrutable, smart and witty, a gentleman who will always grace you with a smile.

“It’s not only an education piece to what we do, it’s also a job creator,” said James. “The biggest thing that happened with SEEL was that it created over 125 jobs in the community. We used community leaders and churches and made them aware of how important energy efficiency is and how simple it is. It has been very rewarding for us who live in the community and work in the community. We have people working for us from 19 to 69. I like to say we have turned people from blue collar to green collar.”

And while DTE Energy had been involved with minority-based programs for 31 years now, receiving many awards for its minority supplier development efforts along the way, they felt the need to continue to improve minority procurement efforts and get minorities even more involved on the supply chain side of their business.

The proof was in the numbers. Not only did African Americans make up 82.7 percent of the city’s population, but they had been awarded minority owned contracts well over $114,000,000, another $106,000,000 to women, which accounted for well over $220,000,000. It made sense for DTE Energy to get even more involved with the African American business community.

The multi-family program and pilots grew to the landing of the Neighborhood Energy Savings Outreach (NESO) and the goal was to target customer areas that were in need of being educated about the need for using lower energy and how it could save them money. The reality is this: the African American community was in desperate need of being taught the value of how to save energy, because low and middle income households were getting hit hard.

Furthermore, through the prism of the Pure Michigan Business Connect Initiative that was started by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) in 2011, DTE Energy has spent more than $1.4 billion with Michigan-based suppliers like SEEL, who have also benefited by the program’s support in gaining access to new capital, its business to business services and assistance in leveraging new procurement opportunities.

“It has been a tremendously rewarding experience working with DTE,” said James. “The key is that they have been extremely supportive, every step of the way. And we have performed every step of the way. We were given an opportunity and we have performed at the highest level and they have rewarded us for that. It has been a great marriage between the two companies.”

After seeing the figures, there were households where sometimes half their monthly income was going to utility bills.

Therefore, SEEL concentrated on community outreach and the need for highly trained installation crews, who would interact on a regular basis with people throughout the community. Thus, James hired and trained over 100 full-time staff to conduct audits and installation, which was required by DTE Energy.

“SEEL has shown an entrepreneurial spirit and call to action that has propelled them towards important business awards,” said Tony Tomczak, DTE Energy’s director of Supply Chain Management. “SEEL has exemplified what DTE is looking for when new business development is needed. I would like to see more companies work new opportunities in the same way SEEL has.”

The results have been outstanding. To date the program has impacted more than 225,000 single family homes and apartment units. They have entered over 300 small businesses as well.

SEEL’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, they were honored with the Andromeda Star of Energy Efficiency Award in Washington, D.C., as the largest community energy savings program in the country for its design and implementation of the most effective energy savings program that focuses on reaching lower and middle income neighborhoods.

There are also audit, weatherization and retro-fit programs, whole-home energy evaluation, heating and cooling equipment replacement and residential lighting programs — all there to benefit the African American community as well as others in need throughout the city, which James says makes him feel proud every day as he gets up to go to work — knowing that he is a vital part of giving back to Detroiters in need of a service.

James has not been the only minority business owner to benefit from a partnership, with DTE Energy, Carla Walker-Miller and her company, Walker-Miller Energy Services, LLC, have as well.

Walker-Miller said she has made it a goal to help people, who were not aware, understand that there are realistic options for alternative and sustainable energy solutions. She said she and her team are committed to helping those in need throughout the community drive down costs and financial burdens that may come from not knowing the proper way to use energy.

“I really want people to understand that it’s really not that hard to spend wisely,” said Walker-Miller. “We like to ignore the fact that our behavior could decrease our energy bills from 20-60 percent, which would create a very strong return on our investment. In some cases, there are people out there who are spending 50 percent of their household income on electric, water and gas and it is our job to help them. It is our job to educate them.”

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